Coast Guard Law Enforcement Retrospective
by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann
March 9, 2020
“Execute!” A law enforcement instructor gives the trigger word that is followed by the sound of bodies hitting the mat. Members of the Coast Guard Station Chincoteague are receiving instruction in the latest policy additions and tools given to law enforcement officers in the field.
Sweaty, red faces gather around the mat as unit law enforcement instructor, Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler Leighton, breaks down the next simulated situation. He slides himself under his fellow instructor, demonstrating an unenviable position from which his students will learn to free themselves. Pressure is applied to a joint, space is created and Leighton reverses the position, regaining control.
February 18, 2020 - Coast Guard petty officers Kermit Volman (white shirt) and Tyler Leighton (blue shirt) demonstrate ground escape procedures during law enforcement training at Coast Guard Station Chincoteague, Virginia. The new Coast Guard training adds a focus on ground fighting in order to keep law enforcement officers safe as they adapt to ever-changing situations. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann)
“It’s all really evolved to what I think is a more beneficial, safer practice,” said Leighton. “I mean, fighting has evolved. I think it’s something like nine out of 10 fights end up on the ground. It’s definitely more relevant and logical.”
Previously, members were only trained in basic takedowns and handcuffing procedures. The new tactics come as part of a larger, continuing trend to update Coast Guard’s law enforcement policy. Leighton has been the unit instructor for the past five years, has seen that evolution roll out in real time and understands where the priorities lie.
“I think it’s a big safety thing - officer safety as well as the people they’re protecting,” said Leighton. “At the end of the day, I want to be able to come home, I want my guys to come home and the people we serve, I want to make sure they’re safe as well.”
The law enforcement mission was a primary responsibility of the Coast Guard dating back to 1790 with the inception of the service. The Revenue Cutter Service was tasked with ensuring the collection of tariffs and to mitigate the actions of pirates and smugglers, helping a young nation find its feet. 1915 saw the Coast Guard begin to form with the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service, an agency with little to no law enforcement Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmannity or experience. As the merger solidified, the new service was tested in 1920 with the enactment of the Volstead Act or Prohibition.
“You have to remember, the Coast Guard we know today was only five-years old,” said Andrew Lawrence, a program and management analyst for the Coast Guard. “Then you have this watershed event in the Volstead Act and you see a sea change in mission prioritization. In some ways, it was a lot like 9/11 was for the Coast Guard in terms of our identity. Prior to 9/11, national defense, waterway security were absolutely part of our mission set, but only 3% of our time was spent on it, maybe. We adapted and changed with the needs of the time.”
The Coast Guard in the 1920s was under resourced for the expectations added by the new law, both in terms of assets, personnel and the training necessary to be successful. The Coast Guard wouldn’t publish a standardized policy on law enforcement practices until 1970s. Crews were asked to engage in a rapidly escalating law enforcement operation without fully appreciating the rules of engagement. This deficiency came to a head one terrible August night in 1927.
Off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas, a Coast Guard crew had intercepted a rum runner. After firing warning shots, the vessel stopped and allowed a boarding party aboard. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but according to varied accounts, James Horace Alderman, the suspected rum runner, brandished a concealed firearm and killed two Coast Guardsmen, injured another and killed a Secret Service agent. He was apprehended by the surviving members of the boarding party, all of whom were unarmed.
“It was a boarding where a lot of our lessons learned came from,” said Lawrence. “Only one person in the boarding party, the boatswain, had a firearm. We don’t do that anymore. There’s a whole qualification for that now. They didn’t frisk him before engaging him. There’s a whole procedure for that now.
“It was a watershed event in and of itself.”
All told, the Coast Guard lost 12 members during the service’s enforcement of the Volstead Act. For context, 11 Coast Guard members have perished in law enforcement missions from the repeal of the Volstead Act to the modern age according to the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial in Washington D.C., where officers of the law who perish in the line of duty are honored and remembered.
Much has changed in the intervening years since Prohibition. The Coast Guard was a very active participant in both World Wars, the Vietnam and Korean conflicts and the eventual War on Drugs. The service has also developed a standardized set of law enforcement practices that are taught to coast guards around the world, the establishment of a premier law enforcement training academy and the publication of the aforementioned law enforcement manual. Even with these processes and practices, the trainings and the stringent standards in place, the world of work continues to be dangerous - a fact with which Lawrence is well acquainted.
February 18, 2020 - Seaman Emmaleigh Brewer escapes a simulated choke from Petty Officer 3rd Class Cosimo Franze during law enforcement training at Coast Guard Station Chincoteague, Virginia. The new Coast Guard training adds a focus on ground fighting in order to keep law enforcement officers safe as they adapt to ever-changing situations. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann)
The names of the 23 Coast Guardsmen that line the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial weren’t added to the monument by accident, but by students of history like Lawrence, who is currently investigating the possible addition of more Coast Guard names. It’s work that requires an eye for detail as much as it does a passion for those we have lost. These same qualities are shared by Coast Guard leadership as evidenced by the continuing effort to make law enforcement trainings and procedures relevant for operators, prioritizing safety, keeping as many names off the monument as possible.
Today, the service with the legal obligation to “make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States” according to 14 USC 89, the service designed to be the “useful sentinels of the laws” on our nation’s waterways by Alexander Hamilton will continue to see the ebb and flow of public and political expectations, adapting with the needs of the time.
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